The year was 1985, and the construction of Lok Wah Estate was just all completed in the Kwun Tong district. The Housing Department, the shopping mall’s then landlord, was recruiting tenants and Tony Lee’s father won the bid for a shop on the second floor. And there began the story of Kam Hei Studio. It has now been in business for 36 years. Tony, who’s taken over the running of the studio from his father, shares his stories about the changes in Lok Wah over the years.
There’s an air of nostalgia in the studio – one can easily sense from the color and fonts used for the décor and on the plaque. The window display is filled with portraits of families and individuals through the years. They come in both black-and-white and colour, and symbolise how the studio has borne witness to the evolution of photography. They have also recorded the faces of the communities in Lok Wah.
Tony has in recent years taken over the business from his 90-year-old father. Having been helping at the studio after school since childhood, he was affectionately known as “Little Chubby” among the old neighbours. According to Lee, the 1980s and the 1990s were the golden age for colour film cameras, which use one-hour photo development as the selling point. “Back in those days, the price of a colour film developing machine can buy you an apartment in the nearby Amoy Gardens. We were all working non-stop all day. There were customers who came in to develop whole rolls of film. When they picked up the photos, they would stay in the shop to go through them one by one, and then discussed which were the best that they needed to print a few more.”
Large families were common in the neighbourhood back then. Sometimes a mother would bring seven or eight of her children over to take pictures at the same time. Most families now have just one or two kids. And even though there are suggestions that population in public housing estates is aging, and that people tend to move out once they are more well off, the new blood just keep coming in and they are also more diversified. “There’ve always been new immigrants coming in. The difference is in their accents – in the past you can tell they’re also from around Guangdong, but now you hear all kinds of accents from north to south regions of Mainland China, and there’re also South Asian families. The important thing is we all treat each other like neighbours and with respect.”
The mass emigration wave from Hong Kong in the 1990s brought Kam Hei a lot of business. Back then air travel and online communications were not as common as today, so before departing, some people would bring their entire families of three generations over for pictures, which then become cherished items to the family.
But the photos that left the most lasting impression on Tony was of a couple who had practically watched him grow up – the occasion was their 50th wedding anniversary. Another one that has stayed in his memory was of an elderly neighbour walking with a cane who came in with the children. A little later the children returned to develop a large-size portrait as it turned out the elderly had passed away.
These days his major source of photo-taking business are student ID photos. And he takes joy in taking pictures for children making different faces. “Some proud mothers would share how their kids got into the schools of their dreams. There are also regular customers who come in with their children every other month so that they can record different stages of their childhood.”
In recent years, the “Time Tunnel” at the rooftop of the Lok Wah (South) Estate carpark has become a check-in hotspot. Tony said some young people would take pictures around the tunnel and develop them at his shop. The more nostalgic ones even use film cameras. “Those who have bought the old-fashioned film cameras would sometimes come to me when the parts break down or if they are not familiar with the cameras functions,” he said.
Tony admits that there are now fewer people coming to develop photos. Yet the demand for photocopying is huge, which is why he has added a photocopying machine in the shop. “Customers are now used to sending the documents to me through WhatsApp and then pick up the copies after school or lunch. This is very efficient. Technology is constantly moving forward. The only way we can keep our business going is to adapt and adjust our services to cater for the changing demand of the communities around here.”
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